Interviewing Josefina Meneses was an experience. We talked in her magnificent house, exquisitely decorated even down to the smallest detail, in company with her husband (and greatest admirer) Francisco, my wife Pilar and our mutual friend Emilio García Carretero. Talking with Josefina is like taking part in a zarzuela performance - she sings, declaims, recites, acts, infectiously ... and makes you feel you're joining in all this as as if you were another participant in the work. A great singer-actress!
Josefina was born in the small, pleasant village of Ajofrín, near Toledo, where many years before Maestro Jacinto Guerrero had been born, and where Maestro Moraleda also lived. She began her studies in the Royal Madrid Conservatory before completing her singing course with Maestro D. Michael Barrosa. She pursued her career within the Spanish lyric theatre, sacrificing other options that her special abilities might have encouraged her to take, and in which she might equally have succeeded.
In 1963 she made her debut as a soprano with Agrupación Lírica de Amigos de la Zarzuela de Valladolid, playing the role of Marola in La tabernera del puerto. In 1965 she began, in Puertollano, her run of performances as leading lady of the in-house company of the Teatro de la Zarzuela, making her Madrid debut the following year. From that moment until the 1997-1998 season she worked continuously with the most important companies of the country and with the most fashionable directors and conductors. As her husband says, it's possible that she has given more performances than any other singer in Madrid's Teatro de la Zarzuela. Her repertory consists of more than fifty zarzuelas, five operas and one oratorio (Christ on the Mount of Olives, by Beethoven). She has taken part in the world premiere of two zarzuelas: Fuenteovejuna and Los vagabundos, both composed by Maestro Moreno Buendía. She has recorded several works for Spanish Television and made two CDs: La zapaterita and Homenaje al maestro Alonso.
Her interpretive qualities, united to her vocal purity and technique, were and are a source of good fortune for those of us who have had the luck to enjoy her performances; we always feel ourselves transported to the places and situations that she portrays. Recently she has returned to participate in two of her repertory works: Luisa Fernanda and La revoltosa, with Compañía Musiarte Productions in the Centro Cultural de la Villa de Madrid, recalling her greatest performances and very well received.
While Francisco browsed through some photo albums of our soprano with Emilio and Pilar, I had this conversation with Josefina herself:
What you have in common with Maestro Guerrero, apart from having been born in Ajofrín?
My passion for zarzuela and having interpreted several of his works: La rosa del azafrán, Los gavilanes, La Alsaciana, El huésped del Sevillano, La montería ... Maestro Guerrero was a great musician who always wrote with his public in mind, although sometimes it has been forgotten that the singers had to sing what he had written.
What do you recall of your debut in 1963 as Marola in La tabernera del puerto?
I was very young, 16, and my work with Agrupación Lírica de Amigos de la Zarzuela de Valladolid was a first meeting place with great singers such as Lina Huarte and Esteban Astarloa. It is at the beginning when you learn to lose your nervousness. I remember that playing Marola I kept removing and replacing the stopper in a bottle, without saying my lines, until the stage director gave me a sign. (Josefina recites a fragment of Marola's role)
Let's speak of your Francisquita. How many times have you played the work?
I believe that I have performed it about five hundred times. It is, without doubt, one of the works I have played most. (Josefina sings a few bars) I played it in three different stagings at the Teatro de la Zarzuela, the first with Angel Fernández Montesinos in 1968-1969, the second with Don José Tamayo in 1972-1973 and last with José Osuna in 1978-1979. Since then I have played it with Compañía Isaac Albéniz, directed by Angel Fernández Montesinos and later in another staging directed by Maestro M. Marco.
We have a special admiration for Maestro Sorozábal - tell me a little about him.
He was a great composer. One of the last great zarzuela composers. His works are difficult to perform. I have sung some of them: La tabernera del puerto (one production conducted by Maestro Sorozábal himself), La del manojo de rosas, Katiuska, Don Manolito - and above all, I remember very fondly the romanza from Adiós a la bohemia "Recuerdas aquella tarde ..." that I sang in a concert dedicated to the composer, in his presence at the Ateneo in Madrid; it is sad not to be see it more often in our theatres. (Josefina sings a fragment of Adiós a la bohemia.)
Which performances outside Spain do you strongly recollect? Why?
I remember my performance in the Kennedy Center of Washington with Pedro Lavirgen, several romanzas and dúos went particularly well - and specially when I sang the very popular number "De España vengo ..." from the zarzuela El niño judío. I also remember La verbena de la Paloma and La revoltosa, sung during 15 days in Buenos Aires (Centennial Park) with the National Lyric Company and Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Colón, directed by José Luis Alonso and conducted by Maestro Miguel Roa, where more than 10,000 people would applaud and "bravo" the performances every day. How zarzuela pleases so many outside Spain!
Outside Spain not many will know about your large major premieres: Los vagabundos (February 1977) and Fuenteovejuna (January 1981). Tell us a little about both works.
I had the huge privilege and pleasure of creating these two works by Maestro Moreno Buendía. It is a shame that no commercial recordings of them exist. Fuenteovejona was played forty five times (I believe) and then dropped by "programming necessity" with the theatre full at nearly all the performances. I was in my element: the role I played was Laurencia, I loved singing the two lovely romanzas and the dúos, and in each and every one of the performances (Josefina recites some verses) I gave my all. Never, whilst singing, have I paced myself in a performance thinking about the following nights. I believe that Maestro Buendía created this role with me in mind.
Los vagabundos ("The Vagabonds") is based on the novel of the same title by Maxim Gorky, Russian playwright and journalist, whose real name was Alejo Pechkov. Musically it is sustained by melodies of Russian origin. I remember I sang two beautiful romanzas, and in particular the second during the singing of which I was transformed from a poor village girl into a great artist; all this whilst changing costume, into feather boa and jewels, on stage, through the masterly aid of the dancers. I also remember the scene, lastly, in which I had to show the protagonist in a drunken state (Josefina recites the scene with tremendous expressivity, communicating her intensity.)
Why only two commercial audio recordings?
Because I devoted myself to performance. I have long, major theatre contracts and haven't been concerned with this, in spite of the fact that the public was constantly requesting recordings. Still it is a shame not to have commercial recordings of the world premieres of Los vagabundos and Fuenteovejuna, and of other works such as El joven piloto by Tellería which I played with the Company of the Teatro de la Zarzuela in 1966, Gigantes y cabezudos, El dúo de la Africana, La revoltosa, La chulapona, etc.
With which character do you most identify?
I enjoy singing and interpreting all the characters, I get inside them and transform myself to make them credible through the voice and the acting. I'm enchanted by the role of La Antonelli, in El dúo de la Africana, which seems made for me and which I've played more than 100 times. I was masterfully directed in all aspects of staging by José Luis Alonso, since when I have reinterpreted it in revivals and tributes to that great director. I believe that around the end of 2003 there will be two performances in the Teatro Real of El dúo de la Africana. I am in splendid voice, the character requires a mature woman and I could have made a great effect and it would have been a highpoint of my career; I have the power to make something of her, and I am sure that if José Luis Alonso were alive, they would have engaged me.
All my roles interest me, I could talk about them all, not least Francisquita in Doña Francisquita, Rosina La canción del olvido, Paloma El barberillo de Lavapiés, Marola La tabernera del puerto, Mari-Pepa La revoltosa, Pilar Gigantes y cabezudos, the witch Blanca de Acevedo La bruja, Maravillas La calesera ... and so many others.
You have worked with great directors: Alonso, Tamayo, Marsillach, Osuna, Deus, Balaguer, Pérez Puig, Sagi ... with which one have you identified most?
I've had good experiences with all of them, we have taught one another a good deal. They have always permitted me certain freedoms in the interpretation of my characters, naturally within limitations. All have been congenial. I have very special memories of José Luís Alonso because of his great love and understanding of zarzuela.
Which, of the many plaudits that you've surely received, do you best remember?
They have been many, but I always remember the times when the public called "BRAVA!" to me, in place of the classic "bravo!". I also remember when were calling "GUAPA!!" (handsome). All this moved me without distracting me from the performance. I recall that some families would come to see me every time, sitting without fail in the same seats. The public is always a key thing for a singer.
On your website you detail very completely your artistic life, that you must have to update with every performance. It says you appeared, when very young, with Selíca Pérez Carpio, who is the only colleague whom you preface with "Dña" (Doña). Why?
She was Dña. Selíca to everyone. When I played with her in Compañía Lírica Nacional directed by Don José Tamayo, Don José had restored her to lyric theatre as an singing character-actress, and at over 70 she was still singing and acting her roles matchlessly. She worked with the Compañía over several seasons. I particularly remember one performance at the Teatro de la Zarzuela where, for more than 5 months, last on the bill, she was playing the role of Antonia in Gigantes y Cabezudos, with the public eating out of her hand. What strength! (Josefina tells some more stories about Dña. Selíca.)
Your colleagues always have positive things to say about you. Why?
In this profession competitiveness should be kept on the stage; away from that we all are equal, we have the same problems and we owe one another great respect, I believe this is the reason.
If you close your eyes, how do you see zarzuela in ten years?
Productions will have to be very believable, using all the advances that technology permits to improve the stage settings, but we must not lose the essentials of what the creators wanted from the characters and the work. It is absurd to represent Mari-Pepa not speaking madrileño. There will, possibly, be more money and this must be reflected in better stage settings. There will be great directors, great companies and impresarios, but it is indispensable that more publicity should be given to the singers; sometimes publicity is given to everything except those really responsible for success or failure - the singers. Many times we go to see a work and we don't know who will sing. That has no logic. (I totally agree with Josefina.)
Finally, give me one anecdote.
Of course I have many, but I will tell you just one. It occurred in the Teatro de la Zarzuela during Jugar con fuego. In a scene with that fine tenor, prematurely retired, José Manuel Padín, one Sunday with a full theatre, he failed to reply to one of my lines, due to the fact that his trousers had fallen down to his knees and he could not speak a word: I went up to him and briskly pulled up his trousers. He left the stage and I had to improvise a few lines until he returned, this time with his trousers adequately tied and tight.
We talked of many other productions, of Chorizos y polacos, El caserío, Marina, Don Gil de Alcalá, Luisa Fernanda, La rosa del azafrán, El rey que rabió, La chulapona, El cantar del arriero, Molinos de viento, La Alsaciana, El gaitero de Gijón, El último romántico, La leyenda del beso, La tempranica, La parranda, La del soto del Parral, El niño Judío, El huésped del Sevillano, Jugar con fuego, of Maravillas in La calesera ... It's late and we must end this congenial meeting, which has made for an unforgettable evening.
We have enjoyed listening to Josefina, feeling the presence of her characters. We have felt around us the music of Barbieri, Sorozábal, Torroba, Caballero, Guerrero, Alonso, Vives ... and we have been caressed by the phrases of Federico Romero, López Silva, the Fernández Shaws ... all communicated by one of the icons of zarzuela: Josefina Meneses. Singer and actress, she should serve as an example to those youthful voices just beginning their careers. Who wouldn't want to see Josefina once again in La chulapona, El dúo de la Africana, or in any other of her great roles!
Pedro Gómez Manzanares, 21 July 2003
© Pedro Gómez Manzanares , 2003